Most professors spend their free time researching, spending time outside, or enjoying the day with family and friends. But Leland Swenson, a Cal Poly psychology professor, digs manmade caves. He has spent the majority of his free time in last 20 years digging and customizing “art” caves beneath his property in SLO County, California.
Once I heard about these caves, I went to my group members and asked if they would be interested on doing a story on Swenson and his impressive, and odd, hobby. Once they agreed and our topic was approved, I told Swenson it was a “go” and we planned an informal tour.
On our way to the caves, we were really curious about what it would be like. We weren’t sure if it would be dark, cold, or crammed. Mostly, though, we were excited because it was impossible to predict what we would see. It was the sort of adventure you couldn’t plan for because no one could tell you much about it. You just had to go. “The most exciting part of the project was definitely the tour of the cave. I heard about it before and honestly didn’t know what to expect. When I went down there, I was blown away,” Josh Munk said. Though we can’t take our readers for an in-person tour, we hope our reporting efforts give this bizarre art project justice.
During the first moments in the cave, I felt like I was looking into someone’s journal. The art on the walls felt very intimate yet whimsical and fun. In a way, it reminded me of the home the animated Flintstones family lived in, though Swenson’s caves were more colorful. Swenson’s explanations of each piece were highly unpredictable, too. When he would point to an art piece, before talking about it, I would try to guess what he would say. I was always off. The art was just as unpredictable as the caves.
“I think the most exciting part was getting to actually see the caves in person. When he’s telling you about it, I couldn’t really imagine it but going through it’s really awesome to see all the detail that goes into it,” said Laura Daniele. Swenson said that no one who has visited the caves has been disappointed. Now we know why.
When people hear the term “caves,” a clear picture doesn’t always come to mind. Being a modern caveman is unusual and initially raises a lot of eyebrows. However these caves are more elaborate than you might expect; not only because of how large the caves are but because of the artwork found at every turn. At one moment, you’re looking at a clay mythical god; at another, you’re looking at a clay moose with a heart and arrow above it. “One Valentine’s Day I decided I didn’t want to just do a perishable card and Debby’s favorite animal is the moose. So I created a valentine moose and on Valentine’s Day I took her down here and said ‘Here is your valentine,’” said Swenson. The individual art pieces may seem random at first glance but all were created with intent and have deep meaning. The strange items around the cave, like the skull collection that makes up the cave’s first room, are what give the caves the funky character around every corner.
“I really enjoyed getting to meet the person that actually has this reputation of building the caves. Each of the rooms seemed really sentimental to him and it’s really amazing to see somebody spend so much time on a project that symbolizes what they’re about,” said Sara Portnoy. Indeed, Swenson has poured his soul into this project. It is not only his creative outlet but a place his family can gather. His search for a deeper connection with the earth, along with his love for others, is what makes the caves such a sacred place to explore.